My ancestors didn’t die for the right to vote, and we are allowed to question them anyway
“Internalized anti-Blackness has us quick to condemn, erase, and humiliate ourselves and our ancestors more than we do the people who did the actual enslaving” — Chelsea Neason
My grandmother lived a long life, but I can only imagine how much longer it would have been without the struggles she fought through. She used to make me go on walks with her when I was visiting home in Cleveland from college, and on our last I could sense by where she carried the weight in her sway, where she carried it in her eyes, that she was fatally exhausted.
As a Black woman born in Jefferson, Alabama just 12 years after the 19th Amendment—which “gave women the right to vote”—and less than a century after emancipation, Jim Crow laws would still prevent my grandmother and her family from voting for at least much of her life.
These experiences were part of why my grandmother would eventually join the Nation of Islam and embark on an even more direct crash course with the anti-Blackness of law enforcement. More than once police beat and arrested her. She could have died then. She knew people who died then. That she survived didn’t mean she hadn’t given her life for this fight. None of these battles quite vanquished her on their own, but many ravished some of her mental capacities—specifically by exacerbating her bipolar disorder. And while some skirmishes left more wounds than others, I know that the damage done by so many years of non-stop fighting is what ultimately killed her.
As the 2018 midterms approach, the chorus of “our ancestors died for our right to vote” will crescendo louder in Black spaces. They will wring the sympathy out of the sad stories of a few of those who died quicker than my grandmother, and erase the stories of others, for their own political purposes. But it is important to acknowledge that all ancestors aren’t the same. As community organizer YM Carrington writes in “I won’t vote in US elections anymore – I don’t want to be part of a racist system”, “the fight for voting rights fit into the greater civil rights movement. The fight for suffrage was only one of the many strategies that black activists used.” For those who died to vote, it was a means to an end in a larger war that others like my grandmother were still left to fight and die in. A war we are still left fighting and dying in. And, like any war, the rules of engagement are constantly changing. Like any war, some people are using the wrong strategy, and people make mistakes.
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My grandmother later left the Nation and became a practicing Hindu. I don’t think she ever found the freedom she was looking for, but she never stopped fighting. And sometimes, she lost her battles. Sometimes, she fought against those of us who cared for her in her neediest of times. But she was always a fighter. She always had to be.
There is so much my grandmother and I didn’t get a chance to discuss while she was here, my queerness especially. I don’t know how she would have taken it. She was deeply conservative when it came to gender and sexuality. It is likely she would have fought against that too. Maybe even died while fighting it. That doesn’t make it right. Disagreeing with her doesn’t make me wrong. It just means we still have a long way to go from where she was. From where we both are.
My grandmother is one of too many of my ancestors with whom I was able to spend time while they were on this earth, but whose struggles took them away sooner than they should have gone. Whose struggles left us without chances to have caring discussions about what we needed to. For those who died voting, we could discuss with care why the fight is still killing us, and why it is that so many of us still can’t vote. In 2012, a historic 5.85 million mostly Black and brown people were directly barred from voting due to felony records, and millions more indirectly barred with restrictive voting identification laws. We could discuss with care how some of our ancestors died while trying to vote, but some of our ancestors died struggling with the idea of voting, too. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote a seminal essay in 1956 called “I Won’t Vote” to that end. We could discuss with care how there is no singular strategy our ancestors died for. They died for freedom, and freedom hasn’t been achieved yet. We still need to have these caring discussions.
As November 6th nears, folks will point out all the blood that has been spilled, and shame you by saying not voting will disrespect the legacy of the fallen. But they don’t acknowledge the blood that falls in different doses, like my grandmothers. They don’t acknowledge that blood is still falling. We need to acknowledge the complexity of our history. By reducing all of our ancestors’ struggles to one particularly bloody battle and flattening them into a one-dimensional concept to advance a political agenda, we continue to commodify Black people to be tools of the state—just like those on the other side of this war that has been ongoing since the slave trade.
“I don’t want to erase the fact that some of us do have cowardly or treacherous ancestors. Or did none of the people who betrayed important revolts have children? We have to face how to deal with them. It will equip us to face dealing with people who betray us currently. Are we ready to have that conversation?” — Chelsea Neason
Yes, some of our ancestors died fighting to vote. Some didn’t. None of them have gotten us to freedom yet, which is what they were fighting for. We can’t get there by refusing to ask tough questions of both them and ourselves. We can’t get there by refusing to regard them as complete beings in a fucked up situation they never made it out of. The same situation we are still in.
My mother is my grandmother’s daughter. My mother home-schooled almost all of her 10 children up until high school, myself included, in the middle of Cleveland without many resources. There were a few times we didn’t eat, but none where we didn’t learn. And while I learned all about the political system and our political history from her, she never pressured me to invest in politics. I don’t remember even once being asked about voting after I turned 18, or ever accompanying her or my father to a voting booth prior.
The first time I spoke to her specifically about voting was the day after Donald Trump was elected president. She told me that she voted, but not for the top of the ticket because she felt they were two sides of the same coin. She said she didn’t vote for Obama in ’12 because what hope she had in him in ’08 he quickly proved misplaced. “I just feel like, unless you are a really special soul, there is nothing we need that you can do in that position (of president of the American empire).”
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At the beginning of this year, my mother was diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of cancer. She is fairing well now, alhamdulillah, but sooner or later, she will be an ancestor too. We all will be. And we all get to question what strategies we use to get free. Ancestors are real people with whom you can engage in whatever spiritual practices you follow, and you should. I keep belongings and pictures of my grandmother to talk through my queerness with her today. She sometimes answers. It’s not too late. We get to ask our ancestors why they did the things they did, and build from their knowledge to figure out how we do things better in the future. We get to think of them as more than the faceless dead to wield for whatever political purposes we have. As people with real struggles, concerns, mistakes and triumphs.
Maybe if we did we could see each other as real people too. Maybe then we would be less quick to shame others for making the difficult decisions they should never have had to make in the first place. We would be able to acknowledge all of our history, not just the parts that fit a narrative where the state that abuses us still reigns. Maybe then we could move forward from that history.